Teaching Opinion

Response: More Ways to Help Our Students Become Better Readers - Choice & Access

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 21, 2012 9 min read
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(You can see Part One of this series here and Part Two here)

Even though I’m receiving plenty of questions from readers (but could always use more!), I periodically take on a “Question That’s Been On My Mind.” This post is a the third in a multi-part series responding to one of them:

“What is the best advice you would give to teachers trying to help their students become better readers?”

Professors Stephen Krashen and Richard Allington contributed their responses two weeks ago. Nancie Atwell and Cris Tovani shared their thoughts in last week’s post.

This week, Regie Routman, Laura Robb, and Kylene Beers -- all authors and teachers who have influenced my teaching -- are sharing contributions.

More guests will be sharing their ideas in this series’ future posts, I’ll be having a special one including many insightful comments being left by readers, and I’ll share a few of my own suggestions.

Response From Regie Routman

Regie Routman’s current work involves weeklong demonstration teaching and coaching in diverse schools around the U.S. and Canada. Her most recent book, Teaching Essentials, follows Reading Essentials and Writing Essentials and provides the ideas and principles behind all effective teaching and learning. Her DVD-based, job-embedded professional development program, Regie Routman in Residence: Transforming Our Teaching series, shows what those ideas look like and sound like in teaching reading and writing in diverse classrooms. You can visit her website:

As a reading teacher for over forty years, getting the “right” book into a student’s hands is the most crucial factor. Student interest, engagement and need to know trump finding the exact, “right” level, although matching books to readers is very important, of course. For finding appropriate books, a comprehensive and relevant classroom library, organized with students, is essential.

Teaching students how to choose books they can actually read and understand is not as easy as it sometimes appears. Teachers can be lulled into a false sense of security when students can orally say how they choose books, but can’t actually do so on their own. Explicitly showing students how to choose a book--with all students watching--and, then, following up with lots of shared and guided practice is a necessity for helping students understand they must be able to:

• Choose a text that interests them
• Read the title
• Have enough background and experience to comprehend the particular text
• Be able to decode almost all the words
• Look through the text and read a few pages to “test” for “just rightness”
• Figure out most unknown vocabulary
• Be comfortable with the amount and size of text on each page
• Utilize the book’s contents, layout, and organization to enhance meaning
• Understand the big and small ideas in the text
• Self-monitor and self-correct while reading
• Tell someone who has not read the text what it is about

Once students have the “right” book, they must have uninterrupted time to read it. Sustained time to read continuous, meaningful texts, most of which are self-selected, must be the mainstay of any reading program. While shared reading and guided reading are important teaching scaffolds to support students’ move to independence, without daily, independent practice time, carefully monitored--mostly through one-on-one conferences--students are not likely to become fluent, comprehending readers.

Response From Laura Robb

Laura Robb has completed 43 years of teaching in grades 4-8. She has written more than 18 books for teachers -- her most recent Scholastic titles are a second edition of her best selling book, Teaching Reading in Middle School and a short, focused book for content teachers, Reading Strategy Lessons for Science & Social Studies:

To develop students’ reading proficiency and motivation to read, you need to balance instructional and independent reading. Both kinds of reading are the foundation of these ten suggestions.

1. Instructional Reading: Teach students to comprehend and think deeply about instructional materials to enlarge their vocabulary, enlarge their prior knowledge, and develop understandings of complex concepts such as human rights.

2. Independent Reading: In addition to instructional reading, students read thirty to fifty books a year --books they can read with 99% to 100% accuracy. Like sports, to improve their reading students practice skills and build automaticity in applying specific strategies.

3. Choice: Give students choice in independent reading materials and as much as possible with instructional texts. Choice results in motivation and engagement because students explore their passions and interests.

4. Easy Access to Reading Materials: One of my eighth graders pointed out, “We need all kinds of reading [materials] at our fingertips.” My hope is that teachers will build class libraries with 700 to 1000 books and magazines on a wide range of topics and reading levels.

5. Teacher Reads Aloud: Read aloud to introduce students to different authors and genres and model how you think about texts. Choose materials students will enjoy!

6. Discussions: These make learning interactive, help students clarify their hunches, and provide accessible peer models for thinking about texts.

7. Book Talks: Invite students to present a book talk a month to advertise favorites. Over ten months, students will be introduced to 250 to 300 plus books recommended by peers.

8. Silent Reading: Set aside twenty to twenty-five minutes of silent reading at school. This can be instructional and independent reading. Have students read at home for thirty minutes each night.

9. Readers Notebooks: Invite students to complete informal written responses in their notebooks. Students can draw, draw and write, or write their reactions to read alouds and instructional and independent reading.

10. Conferences: Hold three to five minute conferences to discover students’ reading strengths, build self-confidence, and determine whether scaffolds are needed. Show students how to confer with one another and document their paired discussions.

These ten ways to improve reading provide research-based practices that can help students develop positive attitudes toward reading and read, read, read to build stamina and proficiency.

Response From Kylene Beers

Kylene Beers, the 2008-2009 President of the National Council of Teachers of English, is the author of When Kids Can’t Read/What Teachers Can Do. She consults with districts across the country and serves as Senior Reading Advisor for Secondary Schools for the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College:

The conversation with the high school principal went something like this:

Principal: Thanks for visiting our school today. I hope you’ll enjoy seeing our reading intervention classes. Some of our students are in those classes 3 periods a day.

Me: And what’s happening in those classes?

Principal: We are using a great program we bought last year. It moves students through a prescribed set of skills and tests them over every skill. They can’t move on until they show mastery on that skill. Like sequencing. Or cause and effect.

Me: So, before you put students into that program you know they have problems with sequencing or cause and effect?

Principal: They have problems with reading. This program fixes that. Let’s go look and you’ll see.

This school had adopted a one-size-fits-all mindset when it came to working with struggling readers. Whether students needed help in understanding a sequence of events or seeing causal relations didn’t matter; the school had bought a program that advertised helping struggling readers and that was that. The problem, though, is that there is no single template for a struggling reader. Some kids struggle because they don’t envision what they are reading; some struggle because of a limited vocabulary. Others struggle because they are literal readers and fail to make needed inferences. Some never make personal connections and a few struggle with decoding. And there are those who do indeed struggle with sequencing and recognizing cause and effect connections.

That means that advice for teachers who want to help their students become better readers is predicated on the teacher knowing why the students are struggling. The suggestions offered here, therefore, aren’t a checklist or a recipe. Read through them, think about your individual students, and then choose what you think is most important for particular readers.

1. Read aloud to your students. When you move to a new genre, a new author, or a new topic, read aloud. When you begin a new novel with students, read aloud the first few pages. Skilled readers not only “see” the text, but they hear it. The most disfluent readers I’ve worked with tell me that they not only don’t see the text, but they can’t hear it. If you want to help disfluent readers develop prosody--that ability to read with the expression needed for a text to make sense--then they must hear fluent reading.

2. Let students talk a lot about what they are reading. The research connecting classroom discourse to reading comprehension is impressive. This means we need to spend time doing what my colleague Bob Probst suggests: asking questions that are about exploring rather than answering. We need to give students time to talk in small groups, think through issues, wrestle with words and ideas.

3. Require that students actually read. In too many schools I visit, too many times the teacher explains that the textbook is too hard and so the teacher simply lectures and students copy notes from the PowerPoint presentation the teacher has created. Students will never get better at reading history texts or science texts or literary texts if they never, well, read them. Of course, that means that we have to have texts in our classrooms that students can read. And that leads to the final point.

4. Stand in your principal’s office every day asking that he figure out how to get more books of varying difficulty into your classroom. Tell him that you want your students reading but that means you need the right materials. Some of your students can probably handle the textbook you have; others can read books even more challenging; and some need a book that’s easier. We must find the resources to make all our classrooms, not just the language arts classroom, print rich environments that are filled with books that our least skilled readers can read and others that our most skilled can read. We then must become adept at matching kids to books and knowing how to move them throughout the year into increasingly more difficult books.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. I’ll be compiling reader suggestions in a future post in this series.

Thanks to Regie, Laura and Kylene for sharing their responses!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I won’t be posting a new “Question Of The Week” until this series is completed in two weeks, but feel free to send a question in if you have one in mind! And don’t forget to contribute your own advice on teaching reading...

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.